Writer Norman Spinrad writes on his blog that a cruel math at the largest book retailers is putting ever-downward pressure on authors like him, resulting in fewer book orders and eventually no publisher is willing to take the risk of buying a manuscript.
Read his blog posts for the full scoop: Part One | Part Two
I'll just add that from what I've heard from people in the industry, publishers are expecting new authors to come to them with existing audiences, often audiences that have been followers of a writer's blog. Show me that 5,000 people read your blog every month, or that 15,000 people have downloaded your free self-published fiction on the web, and then we'll talk about a print run. Whatever the numbers are, I'm not sure. But publishers want a built-in audience, because they're not taking chances. They're also not doing as much promotion of books as they used to do. Book tours are nearly a thing of the past. Authors are expected to become distribution experts in their own right.
In the comments section of Spinrad's first blog post, he responds to readers who push electronic publishing as an alternative to the print model. It's something he's tried, but he says the money's just not there yet. That's a pretty telling commentary, because e-books are where those big booksellers are going in a big way. They are retooling their entire businesses to push e-books.
As a magazine publisher, I've been watching (and discussing on this blog) the disarray in print publishing for years. To an important extent, it's an inevitable change, the outcome of which is not yet clear. But it's also partly a self-fulfilling groupthink momentum. Everyone knows print is dead, but they can't figure out why it won't die, nor can they figure out a business model to replace it. As I've written here before, I think the people who are most eager for magazines, books, and newspapers to cease publishing are the same people who most misunderstand what a reader actually gets out of reading those publications. But the momentum is behind the idea that everything must go electronic.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: The internet does some things much better than print, and print does some things better than the 'net. Each should do what it does best, and they can complement each other that way. But when even print publishers are eager to shed their print side because their funders, critics, and some readers have emotionally invested in the death of print, then we are not likely to see a workable realignment of the print industry come about with the current generation of print leaders (most of whom seem to be MBAs instead of publishers).
Writers such as Norman Spinrad get hurt in this situation. Periodicals writers and editors get hurt in this situation. And readers get hurt in this situation, as their print publications become thinner and stupider and abbreviated and less frequent.